Cultivating a Heart for Winter
I am apt to declare winter my favorite season--if not simply because it’s true, then almost certainly out of pity for a season that tallies a fair share more naysayers than any other. Winter’s negative reputation isn’t completely surprising. It is cold and snowy, and these conditions, regardless of their beauty, create more work and discomfort for those of us who are not necessarily looking for more challenges in life. In fact, if you were to make a list of things that the majority of people dislike most, I am sure that work and being cold would be near the top.
However, living in the north, we need winter to be cold and snowy. You could say it is the dharma of winter to be cold and snowy, the same way we expect summer to be warm and green. A good frigid winter with a solid, prolonged snow pack recharges our groundwater, ensuring that lakes and streams receive a steady trickle of cold clean water to last throughout the year. As for the temperature, winter’s chill helps control nuisance pest and insect populations to mitigate environmental degradation by invasive and non-native species. All this to say--aside from being beautiful, winter is also critical to maintaining the health and function of our Northwoods.
How disheartening it is then to hear so many people giving up on winter, disengaging from it and choosing instead to focus on the number of days until summer returns. One aim of our winter programming is to slow and even reverse the tide of rising anti-winter sentiment, to create ambassadors for winter and cultivate a heart for the season. Taken at face value, cultivating a heart for winter may seem like a trivial goal. After all, what difference does it make if students enjoy the snow and cold? But in a region where winter can linger for six months, an aversion to winter amounts to a dislike of being outside and engaging nature for half the year!
I asked the interns to contribute essays to this edition of SFATP that speak to developing a heart for winter and exploring the challenges associated with teaching natural history in the snow and cold. If we are going to create ambassadors for the environment, we also need to create ambassadors for winter.
A Simple Winter
Each day the interns begin teaching with some simple rules to help the day move smoothly and to protect the forest here at Au Sable. One of the rules is to not pick anything living; we use this to remind our students that they are to leave nature in its proper place. One student in particular seemed confused by this. He asked me why we told them not to pick anything living when everything in winter is dead. Of course the forest is full of life year-round, but it was an interesting reminder to me. In the eyes of a child with little experience in the Northwoods, especially during winter, the forest did look awfully cold and silent and, in his mind, dead.
After that day I changed how I explained that rule to emphasize that our forest, even though it doesn’t look like it at first glance, is alive and thriving during winter. Since I grew up in southern California, I usually had less experience in this type of winter than my students did. However, that lack of experience gave me better insight into the wonder and draw of winter environmental education.
Rediscovering the Joy of Winter
Over the past few years, I have unfortunately found myself falling into the common adult perspective of winter: that snow is a dreaded seasonal inconvenience. Don’t get me wrong, I think the snow is beautiful and I still “dream of a white Christmas” every December. But after January 1, the snow just seems to bring additional chores on top of our already busy lives: shoveling, clearing off the car, cold and wet shoes, more difficulty driving, and then more shoveling. What happened to the delight I experienced as a child when I woke in the morning to the sight of a thick, sparkling white blanket of snow covering the ground and trees? I couldn’t wait to go outside to make snow angels, build snow forts, and go sledding. Why don’t those activities come to my mind now when I see snow?
After learning so much about myself and teaching during the fall internship, I decided to return to Au Sable during the winter season to gain more experience teaching children in all types of weather. Knowing that we would be spending most of our time out in the snow and cold, I started preparing my wardrobe and mindset for a Northwoods winter. Snowshoeing, skiing, animal tracking, and walking on a frozen lake were all winter activities I used to do as a child. I always remembered them as being fun and exciting, allowing me to forget about the cold and notice the amazing wonders of the winter landscape. How had my ability to enjoy the cold and snow slipped away from me as an adult? And would I be able to genuinely enjoy the winter again in order to engage the creative minds of the children I would be teaching? It turns out the answer was yes.
Icy First Impressions
“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in winter.”
We were making our way back – a meandering, hilly, snow-drifting way back from North Country trail territory, toward Au Sable. Poles in hand, feet tucked away in ski boots, we paused. All around us, the knife-like wind had carved the snow into shapes that took on the nature of gentle Great Lakes waves – cresting, rolling, sparkling, subtle. Stretched out before us was a postcard panorama of pines boasting the perfect amount of snow. The boughs were not bent and burdened with a heavy layer; neither were they delicately dusted. The focus was on the snow and the trees as a whole, not one or the other, as they complemented and accented each other’s features.
The adult leaders in my group verbally expressed their delight. The students – their small legs and feet comically contrasting with their skis – didn’t say much as they caught up to the group and breathed deeply from the exercise. But the expressions on their faces were full of life, hinting at a special spark inside their spirits, something that had awakened during this adventure. Then they found their words. I heard a chorus of cheerful shouts, most to the effect of, “Go faster!” And on we went, toward the pines.
Following behind me were students and quite a few chaperones who wanted to experience some more advanced cross-country skiing trails during their overnight trip to Au Sable. They had already been rewarded with memorable moments on the trails. A coating of ice from a recent storm brilliantly encased everything in one part of the forest, and branches hung heavy, almost perfectly at face-level, along the ski trail. Initially a source of frustration for the ski group, the branches soon caused giggles. The students were unable to defend themselves from these branches while making their way down a hill, and the shrieks of laughter echoed through the woods.
We then encountered another hill – this one with a sharp curve at the end. One by one, students descended the hill, unaware of fallen classmates at the bottom. In a state of half-panic, half-delight they would try to slow their speeding skis in whatever desperate way they could, inevitably admitting defeat and bracing for impact before colliding with the others. Nearly all of them ended up in that snowy, laughing pile of kids and tangled skis.
Calendar of Events
April 1 - Maple Syrup Day @ Hartwick Pines State Park. 10am—4pm. Learn about the history of maple syrup production, watch demonstrations, and get recipes; includes hands-on activities for children. Free.
April 22 - Earth Day Amphibians @ Grass River Natural Area. 11am—12:30pm. Check out vernal pools to identify and record frogs and salamanders for research. $5 per person.
April 26 - Planting Native Gardens @ Boardman River Nature Center. 5—7pm. Learn how to choose native plants for your landscape. Led by Vern Stephens of ‘Design by Nature’. Free but registration recommended.
April 29 - MiCorps Stream Monitoring Training @ Au Sable Institute. 9am—3pm. Learn how to monitor stream habitat and collect and identify macroinvertebrates. Free. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up.
May 9 - Wildflower & Bird Walk @ Grass River Natural Area. 10 am—12pm. Donations appreciated.
May 13 - MiCorps Collection Day @ Au Sable Institute. 9am—12:30pm. Meet at Au Sable and then collect macroinvertebrates at local rivers/streams. Free. Email email@example.com to sign up.
May 20 - Annual Native Plant Sale @ Boardman River Nature Center. 8am—3pm. Update your home landscape with native plants. Over 50 species available.
Lauren Westerman, 14' Intern
I am a Resource Recovery Specialist for Kent County Department of Public Works. Wow! What a title. Sounds important, but who actually knows what that is? I didn’t even think it sounded like an interesting job and skimmed right over the application until an old friend told me that I really needed to check it out. Turns out, it was exactly the role I had been dreaming of.
I studied environmental biology as an undergrad at Covenant College and then went on to get a Master’s in Environmental Science from Taylor University. During my graduate program, I discovered that I not only loved learning about the environment, but I loved sharing that knowledge with others. I stumbled into an environmental education internship the first summer of my program and knew that was what I wanted to pursue from then on. A few internships and a couple jobs later, though, I was still stuck in the seasonal job cycle common to environmental scientists – not necessarily the lifestyle that I wanted. During my time at Au Sable, I was impressed with the focus on place-based learning and investing in your current location. I was at a point in life where I was ready to be in one place and invest in both that place and its people, but my job situation wasn’t quite there yet. With the decision to stay in one place made, I stuck it out for just over two years before I found my current job as a Resource Recovery Specialist, working as an environmental educator in the city and dealing with waste, recycling, and compost education.
As one of the lead educators for Kent County DPW, my mission is to promote recycling around the county. Our collective vision for Kent County is “20x20, 90x30” which means we are aiming to reduce landfill waste 20% by 2020 and 90% by 2030. Not only do I value reducing waste and using my own resources wisely, but now my personal values and passion are in line with my work. In order to achieve this new vision, education and outreach play a huge role. There is still a large portion of Kent County that does not recycle or does not know how to recycle.
Contributing Writers: Claire Adams, Shannon Marcy, Jessi Kramer, Paul Wiemerslage, Lauren Westerman
Contributing Photographers: Paul Wiemerslage, Lindsay Barden
Editors: Jessi Kramer, Lindsay Barden, Paul Wiemerslage, Mary Walker
7526 Sunset Trail NE, Mancelona, MI 49659